Why is Hanukkah Eight Days?

Explaining why the holiday is so long.

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A lesser-heard explanation for the commemorative number of eight and the lighting of candles on Hanukkah is found in Pesikta Rabbati, a collection of midrashim compiled in the ninth to 13th centuries. It says that when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple, they discovered eight iron rods. Into these, they carved grooves, filled the grooves with oil, and then kindled wicks in the oil. According to this tradition, the eight days of Hanukkah honor that specific moment when the Hasmoneans officially took control of the Temple.

It's Historical

The questions surrounding the eight-day miracle of the oil are fascinating, and Rabbinic literature discusses them at length. When we look at the purely historical sources, however, such questions are not parr of the discussion. Flavius Josephus, the most significant historian living in the ancient Near East, makes no mention of a miracle in his account of the Hasmoneans and the rededication of the Temple.

Nor is there any mention in the Apocrypha, which provides a basic narrative about Hanukkah. The First Book of the Maccabees (c. 100 BCE), believed to have been written in Israel, simply refers to Hanukkah as a holiday of thanksgiving and joy to be annually observed. The Second Book of the Maccabees ("second," but slightly earlier, c. 124 BCE), written in Egypt, gives a plausible historical reason why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, yet clearly lacks any reference to a miracle:

The sanctuary was purified on the 25th of Kislev, the same day of the same month as that on which foreigners had profaned it. The joyful celebration lasted for eight days, like the Feast of Tabernacles (i.e., Sukkot) and then they recalled how, only a short time before they had kept that feast while living like wild animals in the mountains and caves. So carrying garlanded wands and flowering branches, as well as palm fronds (i.e. the ritual symbols of Sukkot) they chanted hymns to the One who so triumphantly achieved the purification of his own temple.

-2 Macc. 10:5-7

This version explains that Hanukkah was a belated celebration of the fall festival of Sukkot, because the Jews had not been able to celebrate that holiday during wartime. In the next verse of the same chapter, the text says that the celebration should be repeated every year to commemorate what happened in the Hasmonean era. Having eight days of Hannukah is as a parallel to the eight days of Sukkot (including Shemini Atzeret). This connection may also inform two related matters.

One is a passage in the First Book of the Maccabees that refers to Sukkot as the holiday of independence, thus mirroring itself back onto Hanukkah. The other is the selection of the lulav (one of the four species used during Sukkot) as the symbol that was imprinted on Hasmonean coins of the period.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.